The boy who fell in love with Southeast Asia

At the middle of the Angkor Wat temple inside the Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
At the middle of the Angkor Wat temple inside the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I found myself crying upon arrival in Mandalay International Airport – and it was for a lot of good reasons.

First, because I’ve finally arrived in Myanmar, one of my dream destinations. Second, because I badly needed a break after months of recruiting citizen journalists for Rappler. Third and most important of all, because Myanmar is the last country I haven’t been to in Southeast Asia.

I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being able to visit all 10 countries in the ASEAN – especially since I only started traveling extensively 3 years ago.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, aside from being one of the most iconic buildings in Hanoi, was also regarded as the 6th ugliest building in the world by CNN a few years back.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, aside from being one of the most iconic buildings in Hanoi, was also regarded as the 6th ugliest building in the world by CNN a few years back.

My first ever travel outside the country – after Saudi Arabia in 1997 – was in Bali, Indonesia in August 2012. There, I met fellow youth leaders and dreamers from across ASEAN. Some were just passersby but some became really good friends.

It was love at first sight. I found so much similarity in the way we think and the problems we face – politically, economically, and environmentally, among other aspects of life. This love and the wanderlust I discovered pushed me to make visiting all ASEAN countries a travel goal.

The rest of my travels to Southeast Asia, as they say, is history. I went to Bangkok, Thailand and Sarawak, Malaysia during the same year – and my newfound love for ASEAN became stronger.

Finding my identity

I think most Filipinos will agree that, with all its problems and setbacks, it’s hard to love the Philippines. Although I’ve always loved my being Filipino, I started to question this love when I started traveling around Southeast Asia.

When I was in Bangkok, my roommate was a Malaysian named Ameen. We remain good friends but our first meeting was far from ideal. When I arrived in our room, I introduced myself as a Filipino student leader. His first response shocked me, “You’re a Filipino? My maid is a Filipino!”

My first time in Bangkok's Grand Palace in 2012.
My first time in Bangkok’s Grand Palace in 2012.

I know he didn’t mean to insult me. It was a top-of-mind answer that many nationalities think of whenever they hear that you’re a Filipino.

This is the sad reality we Filipinos face when we go abroad. It doesn’t matter if you study in the country’s top university or if you’re a working professional in a good company – you will always be compared to a domestic helper. I love overseas Filipino workers and this, in any way, does not mean to insult or ridicule them. They are the backbone of our economy, the modern day heroes of the Philippines. My point is that Filipinos, when going abroad, are always subjected to bias and prejudice.

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is named after the 30th sultan of Brunei.
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is named after the 30th sultan of Brunei.

This is why, whenever I leave the country, I see myself as an ambassador of Philippine culture and pride. I always make it a point to be excellent, whether it be in asking questions during conferences, or in the stories I write in a coverage.

But this pride was slowly waning off before I started traveling. Because of my organizations, I was getting desensitized of all the social issues in the Philippines. My classes in Theology and Philosophy made me hate the systemic corruption and injustices I see everyday. I questioned my identity and why I had to be born a Filipino.

Thankfully, discovering other cultures in Southeast Asia reaffirmed my Filipino identity. In visiting Buddhist temples, going through museums, wandering through the alleys of ASEAN’s capitals, and meeting new friends, I learned to appreciate my own culture and rediscovered my love for the country.

I saw aspects of Philippine culture in a new light. I relearned to love our dishes, adore our beaches, and accept our history.

My travel philosophy

This gold-covered stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol of Laos.
This gold-covered stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol of Laos.

I’ve heard this quote repeatedly in my youth: “Our hearts are too small to love the entire world. That’s why God put us in a small patch of land that we can call our own, our own country.”

One of the 10 crazy things I did in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
One of the 10 crazy things I did in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

After I traveled across the ASEAN region, I know my heart grew bigger. It’s not just the Philippines that occupy it now but it’s the entire Southeast Asian region. Maybe it’s the fascinating cultures or deep religiosity we share but there’s something beyond words in Southeast Asia that makes it home.

I love getting lost in the streets of Ho Chi Minh, partying in the bars of Bangkok, and shopping in the malls of Kuala Lumpur. Beyond this, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the issues that my beloved friends face in their countries everyday – and with this comes genuine concern.

While I’ve been to parts of East and South Asia in the 3 years I traveled, I made sure to put  Southeast asian countries in my priority list. The philosophy is simple: I wanted to know my home first before visiting other continents. I wanted to be able to understand my home region so that when I visit other continents, I can be a knowledgeable and responsible travel ambassador.

I always look at the context of people and events to understand them better. And immersion in different cultures, I found, is the best way to understand context – from the fast-paced lifestyle of Singaporeans to the laid back culture of Laotians to the seeming apathy of the Burmese.

Traveling to Southeast Asia gave me a broader understanding of the region and the people living in it.

On the ASEAN integration

My travels in Southeast Asia were very timely. I went around the region at the time it was gearing up for the ASEAN Economic Integration. Part of the preparations were bilateral deals between countries on visa exemption and freedom of travel.

With the Merlion Statue.
With the Merlion Statue, a symbol of Singapore.

If you’re a Filipino, you know the hassle of traveling outside Southeast Asia. We practically need visas to go anywhere, mainly because of the thousands of Filipinos who illegally settle in other countries to work. The Philippine passport is one of the least powerful passports in the world, a major consideration on why many Filipinos choose to change their nationality when they have the chance.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to get visas when I went around Southeast Asia. This, plus the rise of budget airlines in the region made traveling affordable to a fresh graduate starting his career in media.

My first trip abroad since 1997 was in Bali, Indonesia. There I saw farmers working in the highlands of Ubud.
My first trip abroad since 1997 was in Bali, Indonesia. There I saw farmers working in the highlands of Ubud.

It’s a rare privilege we get when entering other countries. While other nationalities line up in the immigration to get visas on arrival, we can walk straight to the immigration counter and get our visa exemption stamps with no hassle. I have seen this even when I crossed the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.

While I believe the ASEAN Economic Integration won’t work and that the Philippines is at the losing end of this deal, the freedom of travel between different countries are important and useful steps in sparking more people-to-people interaction and understanding in the region.

After Southeast Asia

Bagan is literally littered with pagodas and stupas. This view can melt any traveler's heart.
Bagan is literally littered with pagodas and stupas. This view can melt any traveler’s heart.

The night before my flight out of Yangon, I was asking myself this question: After Southeast Asia, what’s next?

I haven’t fully explored all the beautiful travel destinations in the region. I still haven’t gotten drunk in the beaches of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. I have yet to explore the art island of Penang. I still haven’t experienced the Jakarta traffic jam, which I heard is very similar to Manila.

But I’m not rushing. I have my entire life to go to these places in my home region. For now, I want to explore Europe and South America before I finish Project 25.

The very first mosque in the Philippines found in Tawi-Tawi.
The very first mosque in the Philippines found in Tawi-Tawi.

It’s time for this boy who fell in love with Southeast Asia to visit other continents. But, as the cliche goes, he will always go back to where his heart is, to the places that captivated his heart.

Southeast Asia will always be home.

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